Saturday, April 18, 2015

Update: What to study in college

This is an important addendum to my March 29 post about the value of the liberal arts curriculum in university study.

The new "ammunition" in my argument comes via Nicholas Kristof in the April 16 New York Times, quoting Harvard economist Lawrence Katz: "A broad liberal arts education is the key pathway to success in the 21st-century economy."  Why? Because there has been a flattening of pure technical skills in the economy, and what is now wanted are those who can combine communication skills and people skills with technical skills.

The student needs both, in his view (which I am glad to say is widely shared). So a humanities major with courses in psychology, economics, computer science and other sciences has greater career flexibility.  So too a science major who takes a good dose of the humanities will be in good shape.

Kristof goes on to say that our society needs people from the humanities to reach wise policy decisions. He also cites evidence that wide reading in literature "nurtures deeper emotional intelligence."

We have to understand ourselves and others if we are to engage with the world as educated people who are, upon graduation from college, not merely trained.  Since literature offers lessons in human nature, in assessing the feelings of others, there is still an important place for the English major.

In my days at the university, I hated to see young people short-changing themselves by having too narrow a  focus. Many freshmen had blinders on when it came to the liberal arts, which they saw as useless, whereas engineering or computer science promised jobs. Yes, but what kind?  And does a technical degree produce a happy life in a world where we must know how to interact with others?

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